Hopping on and off the Trans-Siberian is one of the coolest ways to explore the vast country of Russia. To see as much as possible, it is worth planning ahead booking the odd day tour. During our winter trip in 2019, we decided to arrange a tour with Evrasia Travel Bureau to visit Gulag 36 and Kungur Ice Cave and it was the best day trip from Perm we could have hoped for. In this post we focus on the first half of that tour, Perm 36 GULAG
This post was written in collaboration with Evrasia travel Bureau who organised our tour and guide. We paid for our food and entrance fees.
Perm is a small university town set at the feet of Russia’s Ural mountains. This little university city is very pleasant with wide streets, art galleries and some great foodie spots, but we wanted Evrasia Travel Bureau to take us under their wing, and help us discover some very cool nearby attractions.
Our Day Trip From Perm Begins – Meeting Azat
We clambered down from the Trans-Siberian carriage that steamed in the cold and began to crunch our way along the snow-laden platform. A young guy came bounding towards us, smiling enthusiastically. This was Azat, our driver and guide for the day. We bundled our bags and gear into the car and set off into Perm.
A Quick Look Around Perm
Before heading out of the city, Azat suggested we had a quick drive around to see some of the sights. As we had just 24 hours, we thought it was a great plan and so we wound through the streets as he pointed out the cultural highlights. We scrambled out of the car, shoving hands into gloves and hats onto heads, to see the river bank.
Cue the obligatory shot by the “happiness is not far away” sign.
Onwards To Perm 36
Back in the car and we were off, out of town.
We passed through an industrial town with a huge old Soviet factory and buildings that were in real need of some restoration. It highlighted the difference between those locations in Russia where money is flowing and those where it isn’t.
Just at the entrance to Gulag 36, we saw wooden houses that weren’t just dilapidated but completely abandoned. When the Gulag camp was operating, these served as accommodations for guards, their families and community. There is no reason to keep them up and running so Russia has a few of these little ghost villages.
The Museum of the History of Political Repression Perm-36 (or The GULAG Museum)
What Does GULAG Mean?
If you hadn’t guessed from the capital letters, GULAG is an acronym. It stands for Main Administration of Camps (but obviously, in Russian). Russia has had a long history of exiling its criminals and ne’er do wells east to Siberia. During the Soviet era, a network of work camps was created and they became a vital part of the communist economy. GULAG 36 was one of these work camps, built in 1946, to house political prisoners and intellectuals. It is the only one of its kind left in Russia.
A Look Around Perm 36
Visiting in January was a little bit of a challenge. It was very cold and so we found ourselves dashing from building to building along the paths carved from hip-deep snow. However, it really brought home just what terrible conditions the prisoners had to live in. Even wrapped in my heated gloves and proper winter boots, I was chilled.
Gulag 36 has a great set up to explain the defences around the camp. If you have a guide, they can really paint the picture for you. There were barbed wire fences, walls, dogs, snipers and even if you did get out, you were on the edge of Siberia!
The best bit was the sensors that set off the alarms. A siren starts to blare and dogs begin to bark. It was really fun.
This building isn’t really a classroom, but Azat took the chance to teach us about how people ended up in the camp. From political dissidents to petty thieves, anyone could end up in the GULAG system. Even if you are someone’s number one on Monday, paranoia could set in and you could be shipped off by Friday. It was scary stuff.
Around the walls are old Soviet propaganda posters and we loved looking at the bold prints of Soviet realism.
The main barracks building is built symmetrically with the two ends housing different exhibitions.
Some of the highlights in the barracks are:
- The reading room, with its poster of Lenin overlooking the distribution of books. Of course, it was only those texts that the party deemed proper. If the prisoners acted up they could lose your reading privileges.
- The room that taught us some of the crimes for which people were arrested. Ripping up a bank note with Lenin on it, gouging out the eyes of Stalin pictures and other similar small acts of rebellion could land you 15 years of labour.
- Changing exhibition rooms. When we visited there was an art piece all about banned literature. In another were the stories of people who were resident in the camp. Where they came from, how they ended up in the camp and what happened to them next. This was all in Russian.
- A room all about general camp life as well as the GULAG system in general. Most of this was English so we spent quite a while in here working our way through the information boards and marvelling at the thin boots the prisoners were given for winter.
- A large hall that demonstrates the sleeping conditions of the prisoners. From hard, shared wooden shelves to a more modern single bed, things did slowly improve.
The Punishment Cells
If prisoners didn’t follow the rules, there was a special building to house them. Here, the nice beds became hard shelves and concrete blocks were used for stools. This, in Russian winter, was horrible. If you kicked off here, they could raise your bed away so there was nowhere to sleep, or put you in an isolation cell by yourself There were those that liked the conditions here as it gave them time to think, but it isn’t my cup of tea!
There was a workroom with a small bench in it. Here, prisoners made small metal pieces for large machinery. These workers had a quota to meet and guards even took the work home to finish ensuring they met them.
The Visiting Suite
Finally, we took a quick peek into the visiting bedrooms. Well-behaved or well-connected prisoners could see their families, and these families would have to stay overnight. In this building, there are a couple of visiting rooms with big dividing screens, the bedrooms for the families and a little kitchen stocked with wonderful old Soviet bits and bobs.
Kungur Ice Caves
I was going to write all about the caves here too but there is still so much write about, that we have split this day tour into two.
Perm 36 GULAG was such a cool museum to explore. I really wish it had been a little warmer as the photo opportunities were many. It was just too cold to stay outside for any length of time. If you are passing this way, it is definitely worth a day trip from Perm!